Thursday, August 8, 2013

Trade Secrecy laws provide license to commit negligent mass murder

Thanks, in part, to trade secrecy laws and the absence of disclosure laws many energy and chemical companies have been dumping toxic waste, mainly in areas where people without much if any political power, for decades. There have been dozens if not hundreds or even thousands of cases where this has been exposed and they have been reluctantly and partially addressed. These include a handful of cases that have received an enormous amount of attention, for a little while anyway, as well as many more that haven't received much attention at all. The most widely known examples include the Love Canal in New York pollution by PG&E made famous by Erin Brockovich, and a site in Massachusetts exposed in the film A Civil Action staring John Travolta.There are few if any attempts to inform the vast majority of the public just how common these incidents are.

(This is a follow up to my previous post about Why Do We Have Trade Secrets? Professor Michael Risch's defense of fraud?; after I posted about his study, Michael Risch responded to my views; both his comments and my own additional ones are on the blog.)

In most if not all of these cases hiding the pollution may have been made easier as a result of trade secrecy laws that make few if any exceptions for activities that might endanger lives, especially for those with little or no political power. These trade secrecy laws enable them to require and enforce non-disclosure agreements from employees that make it illegal to inform the public when they're dumping toxic chemicals in areas where it might endanger the public. Even if these laws can't be enforced in many cases the employees may be led to believe that they can and they often face retaliation when they disclose information even if it isn't legal.

The use of trade secrecy laws haven't been the only contributing factor when it comes to allowing the enormous amount of environmental destruction going on around the world but they have made it much easier for energy companies to keep a low profile and with the help of the commercial media that reports one incident at a time as an isolated occasion without reporting on the vast majority of them or taking a comprehensive look at how widespread the damage is environmental damage has escalated especially among the poor.

And it is clearly already leading to an enormous amount of deaths which might be considered negligent mass murder if enough people took a closer look at it. One of the leading reasons that it isn't considered mass murder is because most people don't take a closer look; and this is because an enormous amount of the information is kept secret and on top of that they often create many industry funded studies which in some cases might even get more attention than the more reliable studies that don't have industry funds behind them.

Instead of passing disclosure laws to prevent dumping toxic waste in areas where they might lead to epidemic levels of contamination making people sick or even killing them they often pass trade secrecy laws masking it harder to inform the public about dangers to their health.

If a poor person were to pollute the property of a rich person he would almost certainly be prosecuted for it; however, thanks in part to trade secrecy laws, corporate profits are protected more than the lives of those that live in areas where these corporations often dump toxic chemicals!

Many of the worst offenses are almost certainly in third world countries. In 1991 Lawrence Summers even wrote a memo suggesting that we export pollution to less developed countries. Several people including Michael Kinsley have claimed that this memo wasn't intended as policy but to stir up debate and bring about solutions. This might be a rational defense for the memo if they actually did it instead of actually implementing it as policy. Michael Kinsley even went so far as to say that it "was obviously meant to stimulate thinking and not to be implemented as policy;" but then he went on to try to argue that it was actually a good idea and that they would be helping the poor people by implementing this policy in, "Revisiting One Lawrence Summers Controversy."

So far I haven't heard anyone claim that Michael Kinsley's article was intended to be sarcastic or stir up debate.

However this isn't limited to third word countries as several researchers including Robert Bullard, author of "Dumping in Dixie" clearly indicated in some of his research. He started by investigating pollution that was concentrated in areas populated by the poor especially African Americans in Texas; and found that there were many other areas throughout the south where the same thing was happening. One of those areas was Alsen Louisiana as indicated in the following excerpt:

Dumping in Dixie by Robert Bullard as cited in American Earth edited by Bill McKibben

Alsen is an unincorporated community located on the Mississippi river several miles north of Baton Rouge, Louisiana's state capital. The community had a population of 1,104 individuals in 1980 of whom 98/9 percent were black. Alsen developed as a rural community of black landowners to its present status as a stable, working class suburban enclave. The median income for families in 1980 was $17,188. A total of 19.4 percent of Alsen's residents are below the poverty level, a percentage well below that of blacks nationally and in Louisiana. .... The local residents have roots in the community dating back several generations.

Alsen lies at the beginning of the 85-mile industrial corridor where one-quarter of America's petrochemicals are produced. The Chemical corridor begins in Baton Rouge and follows the Mississippi River down to the southeastern rim of New Orleans. The tiny town of Alsen sits in the shadow of Huey Long's skyscraper controlled building and the towering petrochemical plants that dot the Mississippi River. This area also has been dubbed the "cancer corridor" because the air air ground and water are full of carcinogens, mutagens, and embroyotoxins. the area has been described as a "massive human experiment" and a "national sacrifice zone."

The petrochemical industry has played an important role in Louisiana's economy, especially south Louisiana. More than 165,000 persons were employed in the states petrochemical industry at its peak in 1982. this single industry accounted for one out of every three tax dollars collected by the state. The Baton Rouge area has paid a high price — industrial pollution — for the concentration of so many chemical companies in its midst. These companies discharge more than 150,000 tons of pollutants into the city's air each year. The bulk of these air pollutants are in the form of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxides, and hydrocarbons.

..... Much of this waste was shipped into south Louisiana. In 1986, the state had 33.2 percent of the nations total permitted hazardous-waste landfill capacity among active sites. Much of Louisiana's hazardous waste generated by the petrochemical industries is dumped in the Baton Rouge area. the only commercial hazardous waste site in the Baton Rouge area is the Rollins Environmental Services faculty, located adjacent to the Alsen community. The Rollins site was the fourth largest in the nation, representing 11.3 percent of remaining permitted capacity in 1986. The Rollins hazardous waste landfill and incinerator have been a constant sore point for the near by Alsen residents. the waste site has been the source of numerous odor and health complaints from the nearby community residents and workers at the plant. the plant was cited for more than 100 state and federal violations between 1980 and 1985 but did not pay any penalties. Mary McCastle, a 72 year-old grandmother and Alsen community leader, summed up her community's running battle with Rollins:

We had no warning Rollins was coming in here. When they did come in we didn't know what they were dumping. We did know that it was making us sick. People used to have nice gardens and fruit trees. They lived off their gardens and only had to buy meat. Some of us raised hogs and chickens. But not after Rollins came in. Our gardens and animals were dying out. Some days the odors from the plant would be nearly unbearable. We didn't know what was causing it. We later found out that Rollins was burning hazardous waste.

Air quality in the Alsen community became a cause for alarm. Local residents began to question the company's right to spew pollutants on their community. Complaints were filed with the Louisiana Department of Environmental quality (LDEQ) with no immediate results. Although local citizens registered their displeasure with the waste facility's operation, they got little attention from state environmental officials. Annie Bowdry, the director of the Alsen Community Center—a nonprofit human services program— described the state's response, or lack of response, to Alsen's needs:

Alsen is a black and a nowhere place stuck out in the parish. It's not incorporated. It didn't count. It was not until after state environmental officials visited the community that citizen complaints were taken seriously. State officials could not believe that people endured everyday the terrible odors from the Rollins plant.

In late 1980, residents began organizing to stop the contamination of their community. Local leaders recognized the fact that they were going up against a giant corporation. the annual revenue in Rollins from hazardous waste alone was more than $69 million. Citizens were also aware that the company provided jobs—although few Alsen residents worked at the company. Alsen residents were determined to take a stand based on what was best for the health and welfare of their community. In early 1981, local citizens filed a multimillion dollar class-action lawsuit against Rollins. The lawsuit and subsequent state monitoring of the air quality problem in Alsen forced the company to reduce the pollutants from the waste site. Public opposition to the Rollins hazardous-waste facility intensified in the mid 1980's when citizen groups and environmentalists (Greenpeace, Sierra Club, and some local grass roots groups) turned out in force to oppose an application by the firm to burn PCBs at the incinerator. the protest was successful in blocking the PCB burn.

Alsen residents were outraged that their lawsuit against Rollins dragged on for so long. Local citizens were angry that Louisiana DEQ officials took so long to believe the horror stories of Alsen's air pollution problem. They wondered why it was so difficult to resolve this problem. Admon McCastle, a native of Alsen, saw racism as the root of the community's dilemma:

More than 15 years ago, a wealthy white property owner next to Rollins received a half a million dollar settlement from the company for the death of his cattle after water spilled onto his pasture. Yet, Rollins has failed to recognize it is harming people not cows, in the Alsen community. when I look at this, I have to say racism has played a big part in the company's actions and the states inaction.

After dragging on for more than six years, the lawsuit was finally settled out of court in November 1987. The settlement, however, splintered the community. Residents were polarized into "money versus health" factions. Each plaintiff in the lawsuit received "an average of $3,000 the day before Christmas." There was a "take the money and run" atmosphere that prevailed in the battle-weary community. Opponents of the secret-settlement agreement point to the need for continual health monitoring in the community. This is not a small point since the plaintiffs were required to sign away their right to sue Rollins for any future health-related problems. Annie Bowdry lodged her opposition in the statement:

We wanted to establish a health clinic in Alsen that would be administered by the state [Louisiana] and paid for by Rollins. Since Rollins made the people sick, they should have to pay for the operation of the clinic. all at once, someone mentioned money and the health clinic proposal went out the window. My feelings about the whole thing is a dollar cannot buy my health. But if I knew I was contaminated in time, then maybe a cure for me could be found. If not for me, then maybe for my children.

Overall, life in the Alsen community has improved since residents became more informed on the hazardous waste problem and convinced state officials to closely monitor air quality in their community. although economic concessions were extracted from Rollins through and out-of-court settlement, the community was left without a health facility of its own. Moreover, the settlement agreement shielded the waste disposal company from any future health related lawsuits by the Alsen plaintiffs. Alsen residents still must drive to baton Rouge for health care services.

The community's pollution problem is far from over because numerous chemical plants are still clustered along the Mississippi river just a short distance from their homes. this problem will likely remain as long as the backbone of Louisiana's economy remains heavily dependent on its "chemical corridor." More important, increased public opposition and tougher regulations have made it more difficult to site new hazardous waste facilities. the Rollins hazardous waste landfill and incinerator, thus take on added state and regional importance.

Louisiana dubbed the "sportsman's paradise," has become and environmental nightmare as a result of lax regulations, unbridled production of toxic Chemicals, and heavy dependence on the petrochemical industry as the backbone of the state's economy.

These people almost certainly didn't receive nearly as much compensation as the toxic chemicals cost them; and furthermore, if they had known ahead of time that they were dumping these chemicals they could have acted much sooner and prevented it from polluting the area in the first place which would have been much cheaper and more effective then compensating them after the fact.

Intentionally or not, they have set the stage so that the people of this community could be used as research subjects to find out how much damage the pollution could potentially cause, possibly at the expense of their lives. However even if this was followed up and the research was done the public still isn't receiving the benefit of the research since the information isn't being passed on to the public in an effective manner and used to implement policies that would prevent this from happening. Perhaps more important is the most important thing they would learn is that it is in their best interest not to pollute the environment in the first place and they could have learned that without further research if they were willing to educate the public properly.

Without more thorough research it would be difficult to know for certain if this is typical but after looking at enough of these stories I suspect that there are many more stories like this; and while they might get better compensation in some cases where they have more political power, there are almost certainly many other cases where they don't even receive as much as the residents of Alsen did if, the corporations convince the community to give up, or they never recognize what is causing their health problems in the first place.

These incidents are routinely treated as if they're isolated and they rarely implement widespread policies to reduce these disasters, or at least not nearly as much as they could, or should, especially in poorer or minority areas. Most traditional media outlets decline to even try to do a good job reporting on these incidents; however Robert Bullard continues to investigate them even though he almost certainly doesn't have nearly as much resources as the chemical and energy companies. Another example is the following story about a more recent incident in Tennessee and Alabama where there was a spill in an area populated by mostly white people, probably lower income and the coal ash was shipped to another area populated by lower income African-Americans:

Dumping in Dixie: TVA Toxic Spill Cleaned Up and Shipped to Alabama Blackbelt

Six months ago, a wall holding back 80 acres of sludge from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Kingston Fossil Plant broke spilling more than 500 million gallons of toxic coal fly ash over a dozen homes and up to 400 acres of the surrounding landscape, endangering aquatic life and the water supply for more than 25,000 residents.

Numerous media stories have been written about the TVA toxic spill. Yet, the full "cradle to grave" toxic waste story has gotten little coverage from the national media. Unfortunately, a major environmental injustice was perpetrated by the EPA approval of TVA's decision to ship 5.4 million cubic yards of toxic coal ash by railcar from the mostly white east Tennessee Roane County to a landfill located in the heart of the Alabama "Black Belt," Perry County (69% African-American with more than 32% of its residents living in poverty) and to rural Taylor County, Georgia (41% of the population is African-American and more than 24% of residents live in poverty). Complete article

Thanks in part, to their ability to suppress the truth with the help of trade secrecy laws and their political and legal connections energy companies routinely continue to make massive profits at the expense of peoples lives and it is much more extensive than most people realize. A recent study that covers pipeline accidents indicates that there have been many more accidents than most people are aware of and that since 1986 have resulted in nearly $7 billion in damages, more than 2,000 injuries, and more than 500 deaths. This is just from one type of disaster. In the past when I attempted to find out how many more oil rig explosions there were after the BP I did a Google search and found many more which I listed in BP is just the tip of the iceberg; and it was clear that if I kept on searching I would have found many more and that if I had access to a more comprehensive record of these disasters I might have come up with a list that would be even worse than the study of pipeline spills. In the past few years there have been even more high profile disasters including a few from just the last few months; these include the Texas fertilizer explosion, the propane explosion in Florida , the railway explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada , Yellowstone river pipeline leak , another two pipeline leaks in Arkansas , a Richmond, California Chevron explosion , a large Alberta, Canada pipeline leak along with a report about many more that have been happening over the past 37 years averaging 2 per day , and who knows how many more that aren't being reported properly. For every one that they do report briefly before it falls down the memory hole there are almost certainly many more that happen in foreign countries or are only reported in local areas in the United states. the disaste3rs that aren't being reported properly could be as dangerous, if not more dangerous than those that are since they aren't being addressed.

Edit 08/20/2013: Since this was posted there have been at least a couple other news stories about environmental disasters that were reported briefly and quickly fallen off the news cycle. One of them was a Natural Gas Pipeline Causing a Cornfield To Explode In Western Illinois; and anothe3r involved a propane explosion in Kansas City Missouri; however when searching for this I only found one from last February and more from previous years including Questions grow in natural gas explosion at JJ’s restaurant 02/19/2013 ; Natural Gas Pipeline Explosion Renews Fears Among Homeowners in Subdivision Near St. Louis 09/13/2010 ; 18 Hurt in Gas Explosion at Missouri Hotel 02/17/1991 ; Propane Explosion at House Kills 2, Injures 3 Lighting a Cigarette Touches off Fireball ; Propane Explosion Blasts Tiny Resort Town 08/04/1969 and more including Major Explosions & Oil Spills. Most of these are reported as isolated incidents and they're often referred to as "rare;" however when searching for more they ke3ep coming up on the internet and they might not be nearly as "rare" as the media implies. A more thorough research project would provide more information but that is difficult to fund when the corporations that profit from the industry use their influence to influence what is or is not researched and those that are more sincere have much fewer resources.

Photo source

Photo source

A thorough study of how much environmental damage is being done to the planet would be a monumental task but we already have enough information to know that it is enormous and we should act more to reverse this trend now even before the research can be done.

Unfortunately instead of providing resources to reverse this or to study it more resources are being provided to preserve the status quo including biased studies financed by the energy companies and political manipulations as well. Rollins Environmental Services which was implicated in the Alsen incident has a history of funding environmental groups to go after their competition while ignoring their activities and many energy companies have even been helping to write the government's review for the Keystone pipeline! Exxon Mobil has been trying to undermine research on Climate Change for a long time, according to Steve Coll: How Exxon Shaped the Climate Debate; and there have been many other efforts by other energy companies to control the debate so that they can increase their profits at the expense of the lives of the majority. With the amount of environmental damage continuing to escalate and Climate Change as well it isn't "alarmist," as some people might imply to claim that we need drastic changes soon, without panic!

We have the technology to make many of these changes but with corporations controlling the majority of the information many people receive it could be very difficult to implement these changes unless those that re more familiar with it inform enough other people to rely more on alternative news outlets, at least until we can get major media reform and do their part to hold officials accountable.

Photo source

Photo source

The following are some additional articles on the subject:

Environmental Warfare, Humanitarian Disasters, and Indirect Genocide

"We could just take what's falling free from the sky."

Code Green: One Little Letter

What If Ecocide Was a Crime? Let's Find Out

Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty: 1987­ 2007 Grass roots Struggles to Dismantle Environmental Racism in the United States

As Senate, Obama Consider Keystone, New Analysis and Video Reveal Dangerous Toll of U.S. Pipelines

BP Tries To Avoid Payments For Deepwater Horizon Disaster By Accusing Gulf Businesses Of Fraud

EPA to Allow Consumption of Toxic Fracking Wastewater by Wildlife and Livestock

UK Fracking Firm Admits They Are Causing Earthquakes

Edit: 10/15/2013 the following are a few new spills that have occurred since this article was posted. This is not complete and random searches will almost certainly tun up much more. A comprehensive search would be huge.

Experts: Gas in 2013 Gulf blowout is less damaging

North Dakota waits 11 days to tell public about oil spill

Thai oil spill spreads to new bay on resort island

Shell: New leaks close major Nigerian oil pipeline

Colorado Flooding Triggers Oil Spills, Shutdowns

NH Appeals Order to Set Aside $195M of Exxon Award

ExxonMobil Shuts California Oil Pipeline After Spill

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